What do they all have in common? A lot, actually. And they have set the standard for episodic detective fiction for generations.
They have status in common. In the case of Auguste Dupin and Peter Wimsey, they are nobles. Peter’s older brother is a duke, his mother is a dowager Duchess. Auguste has the title of chevalier.
Sherlock Holmes isn’t an aristocrat and isn’t really fond of them, but he is no peasant. He is from a class that could go to college in the 1890’s in England. That makes him at least middle class. Jane Marple is a spinster aunt the way Jane Austen was, from a family that could obviously let her live peacefully in a quiet town most of her life without any reference to getting a job.
They are also obviously smart. Miss Marple fits this equation, even though her genius, loudly signified in some stereotypical manner such as chess playing or wild deductions in the men, is intuition. She plays the ‘someone reminds me of a criminal I knew once, therefore, crime’ card a lot.
So, we have the preferred self-insert for nerds. A high status person who can broadcast how much smarter he or she is than anyone else.
There are a couple of other salient traits:
- They have at least one friend whose sole purpose is to witness their brilliance and occasionally act as decoys or foils. Auguste Dupin’s adventures are reported by a friend, and Doyle pretty obviously copied that trope in the form of John Watson. Hercule Poirot’s Watson is either Inspector Japp or Captain Hastings, depending on the book. Wimsey strays a little from type in that his buddy Inspector Parker isn’t his recorder but is more active in the investigations. He does what Wimsey admits is the boring part of the work. Wimsey is, in general, more of a team player than the others, with a lot of helpers in Bunter, the Cattery, Harriet Vane, or his sister, Mary. Inspector Parker’s witness role is more in asking Wimsey to explain his brilliance as they work through the case, instead of waiting until the end to ask for the full play-by-play.
The assistants should be kept separate from the witnesses, as a rule. Holmes has the Bowstreet Runners, but you never get to follow them or get close to them. Miss Marple will get assistance from her nephew or random strangers, but in some ways, she is even more of a loner then the men, never reliably having a verified helpmeet on hand for more than a scene or two. Her audience when she does the big reveal in the end varies by story, and so she doesn’t really get a dedicated Watson.
2. They don’t seem to have a life beyond crime-solving. Here again, Wimsey is the exception. He gets married, has a pretty distinct backstory (including getting PTSD from WWI) and he is constantly interacting with the rest of his family in some capacity. Poirot comes into crimes through visiting friends for Christmas or similar, but he doesn’t seem to have a family or keep in close touch with anyone besides Hastings. I don’t think Holmes is ever depicted as having friends or a past. Watson meets him in college, but he’s apparently following his own studies instead of going to class. His only outside interest is playing the violin.
3. They are quirky. Dupin and Holmes were quietly eccentric men who spend their time perfecting their deduction technique in offbeat ways. Poirot is super neat, vain, and goes on about his ‘little grey cells.’ Peter Wimsey babbles, collects books, and dresses loudly. In fact, I would say he is the most dedicatedly ‘quirky.’ Marple’s eccentricity is vagueness. Modern detectives are often sassy or full of weird obsessions, but they aren’t defined by their verbal tics in the same way as the Holmes progeny are.
These similarities aren’t too much of a surprise, given the genre pedigree. Edgar Allan Poe wrote up one of the first ‘brilliant lone detectives’ in Auguste Dupin, and Arthur Doyle took much inspiration from him in making Sherlock Holmes. (I know he talked about some medical teacher named Bell being an inspiration, but he also admitted to devouring Poe’s mysteries and taking from them.)
Of course, Holmes became so ubiquitous that practically everyone else drew some inspiration from him in the same way that everyone writing fantasy carries at least a little of the mud of Middle Earth and the Shire. Agatha Christie acknowledged that she was writing in the Sherlockian mold with Poirot, even though the detective himself drew from two other fictional foreign detectives that were popular when she started writing, and she didn’t stray far with Miss Marple.
Dorothy L. Sayers has to be the most original of the group. Peter Wimsey can come across a Gary Stu-superman (just like the others) in the short stories of ‘Lord Peter Views a Body,’ but his busy backstory and cooperation with others stands out.
And that is what is interesting about this character type: they represent a certain chosen oneness. They are special, and that is why you, reader, should drop everything to believe whatever comes out of their mouth, no matter how ludicrous.
But they are incredibly specialized. Yes, mysteries are plot-heavy stories that tend not to have a lot of time for family drama or similar, so all characters are somewhat obliged to concentrate on crime-solving throughout the book. But these Poirot and Holmes types take this to the extreme and rarely have much else going on with them at all. No one in their world ever seems to drop by unless they need a crime solved either. Kinsey Milhone has her landlord and his antics to follow, but no one in a Sherlock Holmes story has anything going on that doesn’t relate to Sherlock Holmes.
I wonder how much of the appeal to readers is the sheer lack of connections to other people or events. You can focus exclusively on the crime in a detached way and root for someone who never has any personal entanglements that might remind you of your own.
And how much is the appeal aspirational? Wouldn’t we all like to stand out for being smart and be able to solve crimes that we later explain to an adoring audience? Or we secretly believe that we are Sherlock Holmes and insert ourselves in the genius’s shoes when our own lives leave us feeling dumb and useless.
What I can say for certain is that the Chosen Detective gives a story writer a simple hook to hang a mystery from. The Chosen Detective shows up in book after book without much change, giving a reader a welcome point of entry to whatever shenanigans are about to start. Like a computer routine, they free up space for mystery solving, and like a touch of cinnamon, they give spice to an otherwise flat bunch of characters.
This is the Golden Age detective. More modern detective stories will introduce a quirky crime-solver, but they make the adoring witness more of a detecting partner. (Again, that distinction between the assistant and the recorder.) The modern crime-solver is also more likely to have a character arc and a menagerie of family members or close buddies that appear in all or most stories that they can bounce off of as more or less equals, giving them more of a background.
But these detectives are still descendants of Dupin and Holmes. Artists build on what goes before them just as much as scientists do, and they all ultimately show their inheritance eventually.